I was leaving the library this evening, feeling particularly gloomy. I stopped (as usual) by the book exchange which is directly outside. (It is outside the library, but still inside the larger building which contains the library.) I always stop to look at what books are there, as do many others.
"Anything good today?" somebody asked me.
I looked around. It was a retired philosophy lecturer who is still a regular visitor to the library. He can sometimes be "difficult", but on the whole he's very friendly, and quite the lover of reading. Indeed, I once found a note he'd left inside a library book, asking other readers who were interested in discussing the book to email him.
"You might be interested in this", I said, handing him a book of commentaries on the Epistles of John.
For this philosopher is, unless I am much mistaken, a Catholic. Indeed, he was one of quite a number of Catholics in the philosophy department, back when I briefly studied there.
He glanced at it, a bit dubiously, and said, "Well, there are so many good books to read". He put it back on the shelf and kept browsing.
"I actually picked up a copy, here, of that book you put out." And I mentioned the title.
This was rather ingratiating on my part, perhaps. But it was true. This retired professor had been one of the editors of a feschtrift that paid tribute to a deceased colleague-- actually, a priest as well as a philosopher. It was a very handsomely produced volume, and there had been a fair amount of promotion behind it at the time. It comprised a series of essays which various philosopher friends of the deceased wrote, all touching on the ultimate meaning of human life-- some from a religious perspective, others from a secular perspective. I had read several of the essays, relishing the book's atmosphere of consequence and seriousness. I've written about my love for the whole concept of a feschrift on this blog before. (Or was that on Facebook?)
The professor looked up at me sharply. "You're kidding me!" he said, with surprising severity. "The library copy?"
Instantly I saw my mistake. Some years ago, the library had made the miscalculation of selling off some of our weeded books at knock-down prices, to our own users. Academics had snapped them up, often bringing tall piles to the counter at a time, but had also complained about the practice. Their indignation was compounded by the fact that many of the books had been donated by the various academic departments in the first place. My sympathies were mostly with the academics-- I don't like getting rid of books-- but partly with the library-- dammit, working libraries have to weed, unless they are going to be given more storage space every year. The books would have simply been chucked out if they hadn't been sold, but the fact that we were selling them off made it look like a cynical cash-in. Perhaps it had raised the spectre of Thatcherism, something academics are always eager to rail against. This man had been one of the most vocal critics of the book sale-- as well as one of its most enthusiastic customers.
"No, no, no", I hurried to assure him. "Not the library copy. Someone had put their own copy here." That calmed him down, I was happy to see.
We spoke about the book for a few seconds more, and I said: "See you later" as I left. He didn't look around.
I realized that the brief encounter had lifted my mood. I like thinking about the casual connections we have with people we barely know-- "nodding acquaintances"-- people we run into, people we recognize, people that we may chat with occasionally, but who we can also quite freely walk past without any rudeness. Similarly, I like the easy freemasonry of shared interests, even a shared interest as vague as reading. I tried to express this idea in a blog I wrote some month ago, coining the term "soft bonds". I don't think I succeeded too well, but I still like the concept.
This retired professor wouldn't know my name, and he certainly wouldn't remember that I sat in his class more than twelve years ago. All the same he recognizes me well enough for some chat at a book exchange, and he's not at all surprised that I'm familiar with one of his books. There's something deliciously cosy in such undemanding familiarity!